UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. health chief declared Friday that positive results from coronavirus vaccine trials mean the world “can begin to dream about the end of the pandemic,” but he said rich and powerful nations must not trample the poor and marginalized “in the stampede for vaccines.”

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World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, seen in 2017, said Friday that “where science is drowned out by conspiracy theories … the virus thrives.” Associated Press/Matilde Campodonico

In an address to the U.N. General Assembly’s first high-level session on the pandemic, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned that while the virus can be stopped, “the path ahead remains treacherous.”

The pandemic has shown humanity at “its best and worst,” he said, pointing to “inspiring acts of compassion and self-sacrifice, breathtaking feats of science and innovation, and heartwarming demonstrations of solidarity, but also disturbing signs of self-interest, blame-shifting and divisions.”

Referring to the current upsurge in infections and deaths, Tedros said without naming any countries that “where science is drowned out by conspiracy theories, where solidarity is undermined by division, where sacrifice is substituted with self interest, the virus thrives, the virus spreads.”

He warned in a virtual address to the high-level meeting that a vaccine “will not address the vulnerabilities that lie at its root” — poverty, hunger, inequality and climate change, which he said must be tackled once the pandemic ends.

Read the full story here.

San Francisco Bay Area issues new stay-at-home order

SAN FRANCISCO — The health officers in five San Francisco Bay Area counties issued a new stay-at-home order Friday requiring some businesses to close and banning all gatherings, as the number of virus cases surge and hospitals fill.

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People dine outdoors at The Trident restaurant Friday in Sausalito, Calif. The health officers in six San Francisco Bay Area regions have issued a new stay-at-home order as the number of virus cases surge and hospitals fill. Eric Risberg/Associated Press

The changes take effect for most of the area at 10 p.m. Sunday and last through Jan. 4. Most of the counties have not yet reached Gov. Gavin Newsom’s threshold requiring the closures when 85% of ICU beds at regional hospitals are full. But officials said hospitals in the region will be overwhelmed in the coming weeks when Newsom’s order would apply.

“We don’t think we can wait for the state’s new restrictions to go into effect. … This is an emergency,” Contra Costa Health Officer Chris Farnitano said.

The order came the same day the state recorded another daily record number of cases, with 22,018, and hospitalizations topped 9,000 for first time.

Restaurants will have to close to indoor and outdoor dining, and bars and wineries must close along with hair and nail salons and playgrounds. Retail stores and shopping centers can operate with just 20% customer capacity. Gatherings of any size with people outside a household are banned.

Berkeley Health Officer Lisa Hernandez said people should not meet in person with anyone they don’t live with, “even in a small group, and even outdoors with precautions.”

“If you have a social bubble, it is now popped,” Hernandez said. “Do not let this be the last holiday with your family.”

The new stay-at-home order will cut sharply into the most profitable shopping season and threaten financial ruin for businesses already struggling after 10 months of on-again, off-again restrictions and slow sales because of the pandemic.

San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin, Alameda and Contra Costa counties imposed the order. Those counties, along with San Mateo County, were the first region in the country to order a lockdown on March 17 when the area of 7 million people had fewer than 280 cases and just three deaths. This time San Mateo County opted to wait for the threshold set by the governor, though officials said it would continue to share hospital beds with others in the region.

The Bay Area counties are so closely connected that it was much easier to implement a regional order, officials said.

CDC advises people to wear masks indoors at all times, except at home

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending “universal mask use” indoors when not at home as part of guidance published Friday as the nation braces for what is expected to be the darkest period of the pandemic.

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Shannon McNaney wears a mask while shopping for a Christmas tree on Tuesday in Long Beach, Calif. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that people wear masks indoors when they are someplace other than home. Ashley Landis/Associated Press

This is the first time the agency has advocated for universal mask use indoors.

In its weekly Morbidity and Mortality report, the CDC warned that the United States has entered “a phase of high-level transmission” as colder weather and the ongoing holiday season push Americans inside, and said that “consistent and correct” use of face masks is critical to taming the virus.

“Compelling evidence now supports the benefits of cloth face masks for both source control (to protect others)” the report said, “and to a lesser extent, protection of the wearer.”

Mask use is most important in indoor spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained, the CDC said in the report.

The agency also recommended mask use at home when a member of the household has been infected or potentially exposed to the virus. It cited research that suggests roughly 50 percent of transmission of the coronavirus is spread through asymptomatic people.

The new CDC guidance was issued one day after President-elect Joe Biden told CNN that he’d ask American to wear masks for at least 100 days once he takes office.

Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, said Friday that it was a good idea to establish the norm, but that the time period might need to extend beyond 100 days.

In face of ‘grim’ jobs report, Biden backs more COVID-19 aid

WILMINGTON, Del. — President-elect Joe Biden is pushing ahead with his call for massive economic stimulus as the economic recovery from this spring’s coronavirus lockdowns falters amid a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases.

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President-elect Joe Biden departs a news conference at The Queen theater, Tuesday, Dec. 1, in Wilmington, Del. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Biden was to deliver remarks Friday afternoon reacting to November’s national jobs report, which showed a sharp decrease in U.S. hiring even as the nation is about 10 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels.

Surging cases of the virus have led states and municipalities to roll back their re-opening plans. And more restrictions may be on the way as colder temperatures and holiday travel lead to new records for confirmed cases and deaths.

“This is a grim jobs report,” Biden said in a statement ahead of his speech. “It shows an economy that is stalling. It confirms we remain in the midst of one of the worst economic and jobs crises in modern history.”

While Biden has thrown his support behind a bipartisan economic relief bill of about $900 billion, he has said much more will be needed once he takes office next year.

“Congress and President Trump must get a deal done for the American people,” Biden said. “But any package passed in the lame duck session is not enough. It’s just the start.”

Alabama man beats COVID-19, marks 104th birthday

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A World War II veteran from Alabama has recovered from COVID-19 in time for his 104th birthday.

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World War II veteran and COVID-19 survivor Major Wooten holds a celebratory milkshake on his 104th birthday on Dec. 3 in Madison, Alabama. Holly Wooten McDonald via Associated Press

A relative says Major Wooten is physically drained and a little fuzzy mentally after battling the coronavirus. But granddaughter Holly Wooten McDonald says he appears to be on the mend as he marks his birthday.

McDonald said her grandfather tested positive for coronavirus on Nov. 23 after her mother — his daughter — got the illness. He was hospitalized but the Alabama football fan and former worker at U.S. Steel got better.

Madison Hospital shared video of Wooten wearing a face mask and waving while workers sang “Happy birthday dear Pop Pop” as he was discharged in a wheelchair decorated with balloons on Tuesday, two days before his birthday.

Are layovers riskier than long-haul flights during the pandemic? Here’s what doctors say.

As coronavirus cases rise across the United States this winter, completing any air travel will be full of fraught decisions — which airlines still have social-distancing protocols, whether to lounge in the airport, and when (if ever) it’s safe to take off your mask. But longer flights and those that require a layover at another airport will be perhaps the most anxiety-inducing, as they prolong your window of risk for picking up the virus.

Recent studies on in-flight transmission of the coronavirus make clear that longer flights have been superspreader events; the longer a group of people is gathered, the higher the risk of the virus becoming airborne. But health experts have also warned travelers that airports and public transportation can facilitate the spread of the coronavirus, as well.

So what is a traveler to do if the options are either boarding a long, potentially crowded flight or breaking up the journey with a precautionary layover?

Doctors say it depends but that one option will typically be better than the other.

Read the full story here.

NIH director advises churches to hold ‘remote services’ amid surge

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, called on religious leaders to keep places of worship closed as the country grapples with record levels of coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths.

In a Zoom conversation with Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Collins said as the coronavirus continues to spread at record levels and vaccine distribution “won’t happen overnight,” churches “ought to be advised to go to remote services, if they are not already doing so.”

“The virus is having a wonderful time right now, taking advantage of circumstances where people have let their guard go down,” said Collins, a churchgoer himself. “Churches gathering in person is a source of considerable concern and has certainly been an instance where super spreading has happened and could happen again.”

His remarks came on the same day the Supreme Court sided with a California church challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom’s restrictions on indoor church services and ordered a federal-district court to reexamine similar previous rulings in California.

Amid heated debates across the country over mask mandates and restrictions on church services, seen by many as an affront to individual liberties and religious rights, Collins urged Christians not to see a mask mandate as “a political statement” or “an invasion of your personal freedom.”

“This is a lifesaving device,” he said. “When you put on that mask, you’re protecting yourself from other people, but mostly you’re protecting them from yourself. You’re doing the altruistic, loving thing of saying, ‘I’m going to protect people from me.’ And that’s a Christian action if ever I’ve heard one.”

Fauci: Despite soaring cases, ‘we have not yet seen the post-Thanksgiving peak’

Anthony S. Fauci said Friday that the record-setting surge in infections doesn’t fully account for the expected increases after Americans traveled and gathered for Thanksgiving.

“We have not yet seen the post-Thanksgiving peak,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show. “That’s the concerning thing, because the numbers in and of themselves are alarming. … Likely, we’ll see more of a surge as you get two and three weeks past the Thanksgiving holiday. And the thing that concerns me is that abuts right on the Christmas holiday, as people start to travel and shop and congregate.”

Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, also told NBC that he accepted “right on the spot” when President-elect Joe Biden asked him to serve in an expanded role in his administration.

His standing with Trump has been in question, with the current president repeatedly highlighting instances in which he thought Fauci was wrong about aspects of the pandemic.

Fauci said he and Biden also discussed the incoming president’s appeal to Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days of his administration. Fauci said he agreed it was a good idea to establish the norm but said it’s possible that the time period might need to extend beyond 100 days.

He also endorsed the idea of an array of public figures getting vaccinated publicly to build confidence in the safety of the process.

“The public relates to different types of people,” he said. “Some relate more to presidents. Some relate to sports figures. Some relate to entertainers. Anyone that can build the confidence in the public about getting the vaccine would be a good thing.”

COVID misinformation sites using tools from Google, Facebook and Apple, report finds

Google, Facebook, Apple and other technology companies that try to keep COVID-19 disinformation and fraud off their own platforms are enabling their spread through online services, tools and code they offer other websites that push such content, according to a new report from Oxford University.

The 120 websites studied by the Oxford researchers support protests against government health restrictions or spread misleading information about COVID – false cures, fake charities or misleading health advice. These sites use web hosting, ad-tracking services, web development tools and social media links from leading technology companies.

Some of the tools are free “widgets” – bits of computer code – that allow web designers to expand the capabilities of their sites and are used widely across the Internet, often without the companies that produce them knowing who is deploying them. Several problematic sites, for example, support financial transactions through Apple Pay, use Apple’s affiliate links or enable compatibility with Apple devices such as the iPhone, the Oxford researchers said.

Some of the content pushed by the websites using these tools and services probably would not be permitted on platforms run by several of the same top technology companies, including Facebook and Google, whose web tools were “particularly pervasive” on the sites, the report found. These and other companies have worked for months to fight scammers seeking to profit from the pandemic and disinformation that undermines the efforts of public health officials to control it.

The report, “Profiting from the Pandemic,” published this week by Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project, suggests these companies could do more.

“They’ve made the first step in doing content moderation,” said Philip N. Howard, principal investigator for the project and a co-author of the report along with Oxford researcher Yung Au. “The next step is to withdraw the back-end services that enable COVID misinformation and fraudulent scams.”

The analysis of 40 COVID disinformation sites, for example, found nearly 2,000 “components” – a catchall term for tools or bits of code – from Google, more than 800 from Facebook and more than 360 from Apple, the report said.

Cloudflare, which provides content-delivery services and protection from some types of online attacks, had nearly 550 components on the disinformation sites, and Amazon had more than 330. GoDaddy, which provides web hosting and domain registrar services, had components on 14 of the sites pushing protests against public health restrictions.

The report does not suggest, however, that more aggressive action by these companies necessarily would prevent the COVID fraud and disinformation websites from successfully operating online.

While Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon were leading sources of tools and services for the websites studied by Oxford, the largest single category of companies providing such support was “Others,” underscoring how a range of smaller companies provide similar services. If the larger companies acted against these websites, they probably could shift to smaller service providers, the Oxford report acknowledged.

Read the full story here.

Quebec cancels Christmas gatherings permission

MONTREAL — The Quebec government is cancelling its plan to allow gatherings over four days of the Christmas holidays.

Premier Francois Legault announced Thursday that the province will no longer permit multi-household gatherings of up to 10 people from Dec. 24 through Dec. 27 as had been planned.

Legault first announced the Christmas plan on Nov. 19, saying people could get together as long as they quarantined for a week before and a week after the holiday period. But coronavirus infections, COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise and the province’s health system is deemed fragile due to a lack of staffing.

Legault says it’s not realistic to think the numbers will go down sufficiently by Christmas.

The French-speaking Canadian province reported 1,470 coronavirus cases Thursday.

Second virus wave in Belgium on the decline

BRUSSELS — Belgium says the country’s second coronavirus wave is well on the decline, with all major public health indicators showing improvement over the past week.

Belgian virologist Steven Van Gucht of the government’s Sciensano health group said Friday that the daily average of virus-related deaths now stood at 116 people, a 23% decrease compared to the previous 7-day average.

Patients in intensive care also declined to 788; a few weeks ago, authorities feared demand would outstrip Belgium’s 2,000-bed ICU capacity.

Despite the positive trend, authorities stressed there could be no relaxing of efforts to contain the virus during the Christmas season.

Staff, residents of nursing homes to be vaccinated first in Sweden

STOCKHOLM — Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven says older people in retirement homes and staff in nursing homes, an estimated 570,000 people, will be the first to get vaccinated once European regulators give their approval.

He said Friday that after the European Medicines Agency and the European Commission approve a vaccine, “we will get started. The vaccine will reach all parts of our country.”

Lofven says the Scandinavian country that opted for a different approach to handling the pandemic by keeping large sections of society open and relied mainly on recommendations to its population, “must be ready to start as soon as the vaccine or vaccine arrives in the country.”

He says, “A year ago, we had not even heard of COVID-19. Now we are planning for vaccination. It is huge.”

He called it “a light in these dark weeks” and added it would be free of charge.

Johan Carlsson, head of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, warned that the pandemic isn’t over just because a vaccine arrives.

Fauci apologizes for criticism of British vaccine rollout

LONDON — America’s top infectious disease has apologized for suggesting U.K. authorities rushed their authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine, saying he has “great faith” in the country’s regulators.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had sparked controversy with an earlier interview in which he said U.K. regulators hadn’t acted “as carefully” as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Fauci said late Thursday that he meant to say U.S. authorities do things differently than their British counterparts, not better, but his comments weren’t phrased properly.

Fauci told the BBC: “I do have great faith in both the scientific community and the regulatory community at the U.K., and anyone who knows me and my relationship with that over literally decades, you know that’s the case.”

 


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